Dallas’ Arts District achieves true synergy as the DMA and DTC unite for ‘Red,’ gay writer John Logan’s Tony winner about art
Joel Ferrell stands before a gathered crowd inside a rehearsal space at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, about to address them about his vision for the play they are all gathered to stage soon. Although the cast is made up of only two actors, there are 80 folks in the room, sipping on bottled water and noshing on finger sandwiches and a cookie platter from Sam’s Club.
Assembled are the usual collection of Dallas Theater Center employees, board members and guild volunteers, but also on hand are some people who seldom find themselves at a play rehearsal: Staffers from the Dallas Museum of Art.
That’s because the play Ferrell is about to direct — Red, gay playwright John Logan’s invented but historically based analysis of the modern artist Mark Rothko, whose huge, color-soaked canvases helped revolutionized the abstract expressionism movement of the middle 20th century — deals closely with the world of art. A world, Ferrell promptly admits, he knew little of when he agreed to direct this play. So he sought out the advice of experts.
The result has been what most have called the most substantial collaboration between residents of the Arts District since it took its present form.
When the Wyly and the Winspear Opera House opened four years ago, delivering Dallas’ its much-touted “largest contiguous urban arts area in the country,” it promised to be a place where the arts community would work together as one. During that time, there have been a few forays into such artistic collaboration — dancing in DTC’s The Wiz by the Dallas Black Dance Theater; the company’s artistic director Kevin Moriarty, staging a production for the Dallas Opera — but a teaming like the one between the DTC and DMA, as the Red staging has become, is the culmination of that promise: Art, theater, architecture — and most importantly, the audience — joining for a multifarious cultural coup.
Making art (theater) about art (painting) can seem like so much navelgazing, all a little too … too … meta. But for all involved, it’s about much more than that: It’s about providing Dallas with a forum to explore the city’s vast cultural landscape. (It comes just months after Klyde Warren Park opened just south of the DMA, physically joining Uptown with Downtown, and as the Perot Museum less than a mile down the street opened its doors.)
“The [DTC] is committed to creating meaningful collaborations with our peer organizations in the Arts District,” said Moriarty when announcing the collaboration. That has certainly been the case with Red.
“This is unique in the depth of the collaboration,” says Carolyn Bess, the DMA’s director of programming and head of the Arts & Letters Live series, which has long fostered collaboration between disciplines. “We have included other [groups] in our programming before, but this is on a much deeper, much broader scale.”
The teaming began many months ago, when Ferrell and set designer Bob Lavallee approached the DMA with the goal of inspecting their two Rothkos. The DMA’s major Rothko — Orange, Red and Red — was painted in 1962 (near the time the play is set, while Rothko was working on a huge commission for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York) and acquired by the museum in 1968. (The other is in storage and not available for public viewing.) Bess was surprised by how curious these theaterfolk were about not just the painting itself, but about its physical presence — how the canvas was stretched over the frame, and what the undercoat was like.
“They wanted to see the back of the paintings,” Bess says … a request unusual for patrons of art. “But that’s theater people — they immerse themselves in the details. I know Joel set out on a quest to see as many Rothkos as possible whenever he traveled.”
For his part, Ferrell is equally deferential to the DMA.
“I thought I’d gain knowledge [approaching the DMA], but in dealing with Max [Anderson, see sidebar] and Carol [Mancusi-Ungaro] and their staff, I was equally charmed, thrilled and intimidated,” Ferrell says. “Art is in [Max’s] DNA. Truly their generosity has been phenomenal. Everything we ask about, they helped with. Bob [Lavallee] and I needed to understand Rothko on a visceral level and they provided people smart enough to do that.”
What began as a cooperative research project, however, blossomed into a full-on cultural partnership. Red was initially slated to be performed at the DTC’s Kalita Humpreys Theater in Uptown; when it was moved to the Wyly — in the DTC’s upstairs rehearsal hall, designed to mimic almost exactly the dimensions and look of Rothko’s Lower East Side studio — a more thoroughgoing collaboration seemed appropriate.
Thus, not only is Orange, Red and Red prominently on display (as well as the works of Rothko contemporaries) for theater patrons who wish to explore the DMA after seeing the play, but several specific programs have been put in place for the show, which runs much longer than most DTC productions (more than seven weeks total; it ends March 24).
The biggest of these will be Red In-Depth, a four-hour seminar and show which takes place Feb. 23 at both the Wyly and the DMA: It starts with a pre-show lecture, then performance, then post-show talk-back, followed by a walk down Flora Street for a personalized tour inside the DMA. The same program will be offered to student groups (the next is Feb. 27), and every performance features the “come early” lecture and the post-show talk-back.
Ferrell, for one, has been amazed at how many patrons stick around for the after-show discussion; on opening night, fully 30 of the 130 patrons remained … a figure Ferrell says has been pretty consistent.
Responsibility for the pre-show lectures is being shared by members of the DMA staff and the DTC’s. The idea, explains Bess, is to “put Rothko in context with his contemporaries.”
The experience has been equally illuminating for the DMA, as they see personalities in the art field they know from their work brought to life onstage. That, of course, is always the responsibility of theater artists. The trick has been to combine the disciplines of art and theater in a way that satisfies lovers of both. (See sidebar review, below.)
“This is an unbelievably intimate play — I always knew that,” Ferrell says. “Rothko once even said something like, ‘My paintings are like players in a play.’ I think the hard thing about the play is, it asks you to converse with it in the same way Rothko wanted you to converse with his paintings.”
Ever since Moriarty took over at the DTC, the theme of “engaging in a conversation” has permeated the approach to every production. With Red, it reaches a level heretofore not achieved. Not only is the audience asked to participate, but the entire Arts District has become part of the conversation. That, for Ferrell, is exactly what the artistic process should be about.
“This has definitely felt like, ‘Holy crap! This is what comes from being neighbors,’” Ferrell exclaims about the partnership. “Now I’m desperate to do more.
I’d love to do something with Texas Ballet Theater.” But next up on his wish list? “The Nasher!” he says without pause.
Red In-Depth takes place Feb. 23, starting at 1 p.m. Red runs through March 24 at the Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St. Tuesday–Sunday. DallasTheaterCenter.org. Rothko and other modernists are on display at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 Harwood St. Tuesday–Sunday. DallasMuseumofArt.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 22, 2013.